Answering James Fallows on the Question: Is War With Iran Imminent?

Jim Fallows has once again done a service to humanity (or at least the slice of humanity that reads The Atlantic) by framing some of the key questions about the Iranian-Israeli conundrum. You should read his entire post before you read what I'm about to say. But in essence, Jim is asking a straightforward question: Are the odds of an Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities lower today than they were a month ago? Jim points to various developments, including and especially the P5 + 1 talks between the major powers and Iran that have not yet borne fruit, but have not yet not borne fruit, either, as well as statements from various Israeli security leaders (and others) who have been critical of what they see as Benjamin Netanyahu's rush to unilateral military action.

Jim writes, "Please tell me that my 'war is not at hand' inference is correct. Or, if you can't in good conscience do that, please tell me how you read this recent news."

Jim: War is not at hand, though not mainly for the reasons you outlined. It is true that it would be very difficult for Netanyahu to launch an attack on Iran's facilities while these negotiations are taking place (the next round is scheduled to begin on May 23) -- or, more to the point, it would be difficult for Netanyahu to launch a strike if Barack Obama were to indicate publicly, after the next round, that he thinks the negotiations were going somewhere, and should be given time to work. (My prediction: Obama says this almost no matter what happens, because it's in his short-term interest to push off international crises until after November, though, of course, he can't be made to look like a patsy, which is what Mitt Romney will call him almost no matter what happens).

Another prediction: the negotiations probably won't work, since it is in the Iranian regime's best interest to preserve a latent nuclear capability. They do watch the news in Tehran, and they know what happened to the nuke-less Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi at the hands of the Americans).

And it also true that many Israeli figures, including the former prime minister, Ehud Olmert, and the former head of the Shabak, the Israeli internal security service, have come out strongly against the Netanyahu govenrment on the issue of Iran (The former Shabak head, Yuval Diskin, joins the former Mossad head, Meir Dagan, in the camp of those who say they believe a preemptive attack would be foolish.)

Three observations about this phenomenon before I move to the other looming issue:

1) These ex-security chiefs are saying what they are saying because they believe that Netanyahu (and the defense minister, Ehud Barak), are dead serious about a strike on Iran. There's no reason for them to come out the way hey have if they thought Netanyahu was bluffing. Whenever one of them launches a public attack on the current government,  I assume (perhaps wrongly) that they have specific information, or at least a good sense, that Netanyahu and Barak have moved closer to a decision, and so are trying to stop them from advancing toward a strike. So, from a certain perspective, this should make you nervous.

2) These men aren't saints, motivated solely by pure selflessness. They seem to desire political careers of their own, and so their critiques have to seen in this light.

3) It doesn't matter that much what they say. Ehud Olmert is a disgraced ex-prime minister, who unlike Netanyahu, has taken Israel into controversial wars. As for the ex-security chiefs, think about this in the American context for a minute. Assume that Barack Obama is contemplating launching some sort of strike in the Middle East (actually, he is, against Iran, but next year, or the year after). Now assume that there is a public debate about Obama's presumed plan, and a series of former CIA directors come out against the plan. Does Obama dump the idea simply because Michael Hayden went on Meet the Press to denounce it? What if ex-generals come out and call Obama an idiot? Does Obama change his national security strategy because Tommy Franks doesn't like it? don't think so.

One permutation: It is thought that men like Diskin and Dagan are speaking for intelligence officials still inside the system, men who are still reporting to Netanyahu. Let's assume, as is reasonable, that Tamir Pardo, the current head of the Mossad, is opposed to a unilateral strike against Iran. He makes his case to Netanyahu, and Netanyahu rejects it. Does Pardo resign? Probably not. Does he help carry out Netanyahu's decision? Yes, he does, as does Benny Gantz, the current IDF chief of staff, who also has some qualms about the time-line. The simple fact remains: The prime minister and the defense minister are the ones who will make this decision, with the backing of their cabinet. Everything else is commentary.

And now for the most important reason you might be able to breathe easy: Netanyahu is appear to be going for early elections. He's popular right now, the opposition is weak, and he looks to be going to try to solidify his hold on power, and possibly re-order his coalition, to bring in centrist parties and dump some of the lunatics in his cabinet. It makes little political sense for him to launch an attack on Iran in the run-up to an election. He's a fairly cautious man (again, look at his record of going to war vs. that of Ehud Olmert), and in any case, the election campaign will coincide with the P5 + 1 talks.

The question to ask at the current moment is: When exactly will these elections take place, if they take place? If they're held in August, and assuming that Netanyahu will be able to form a government in four-to-eight weeks, this will take us into late September, or early October. Still time, in other words, to launch an attack before the American presidential election. But if the Israeli elections aren't scheduled until September, then it looks as if he wouldn't have time to launch an attack. And, as I've written before, if Netanyahu doesn't launch an attack before November, then I doubt he'll launch an attack at all.

All of this is good news if you, like me, think that the question of military intervention should be pushed off, and if you, like me, believe that President Obama is sincere in saying that he will not allow Iran to cross the nuclear threshold. Because this is the ultimate question: If Netanyahu believes that Obama "has Israel's back," as the President has said, then there's no need for Israel to do anything precipitous or unilateral.

P.S. I haven't yet dealt with the impact on Netanyahu of his father's death (a relationship -- the ideological component, at least -- I wrote about here) but I will.